Commentary

Feds Giving Disability Benefits to the Able Bodied

By James M. Taylor
September 1, 2000
Beyond its function as a retirement program, Social Security provides income to people so severely disabled they can’t perform any “substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” Or at least that’s how the law is written. In reality, the Social Security Administration is facilitating massive fraud by awarding disability benefits to people who admit they can work and have no legitimate claim to benefits.

Payments under the Social Security Disability Insurance program account for 14 percent of all the money Social Security dispenses every year. In 1999 alone, the program handed out a staggering $57 billion meant for recipients with the most severe disabilities. That sum is in addition to the more than $50 billion SSDI gives annually to people with various disabilities under other federal programs. The first hint that SSDI benefits are being wasted is the fact that between 1991 and 1997 the American population grew by 7 percent, while the number of SSDI recipients grew by 47 percent. Have that many more Americans really become disabled?

The answer is clearly no. Fortunately, a raft of recent lawsuits is shedding light on this fraud. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employees can sue if they think they’ve been dismissed because of their disability. Employees must prove they are perfectly capable of doing their jobs, perhaps with some form of reasonable accommodation provided by the employer.

But, as it turns out, many people who get fired are filing both ADA claims seeking reinstatement and SSDI claims maintaining that they are too disabled to hold a job. In many ADA cases a federal judge rules that the plaintiff is not disabled and was dismissed for legitimate reasons, such as misconduct. Logic tells us that someone cannot be both perfectly capable of working and totally unable to work, but logic has not stopped the government from dispensing benefits to people clearly capable of working. Consider a few examples:

* A Kansas City bus driver was fired for sleeping on the job. She claimed two disabilities under the ADA: hypertension, which she had controlled for 10 years with medication, and a bruised knee. Even though these disabilities hardly rendered her incapable of working, she was awarded SSDI benefits anyway. Now she can sleep at home while receiving taxpayers’ money.

* A Disney Store employee was fired for stealing from the cash register to buy cigarettes. He confessed but also revealed that he was HIV positive. When he was fired, he claimed the firing was for being HIV positive, not for stealing. Yet even though he was perfectly able to work up to the very day he was dismissed, he won SSDI benefits.

* A textile worker for Stowe-Pharr Mills was refused permission to transfer back to a job site where she had previously exposed herself to other workers. In the ensuing ADA case she claimed a disability that made it hard for her to work on concrete as opposed to wooden floors. The federal judge ruled that she was not disabled under ADA, but the SSA awarded her full disability benefits anyway.

An examination of just a small percentage of awards has uncovered literally dozens of fraudulent cases, surely the tip of the iceberg. Because SSDI awards are confidential and come to light only when someone files an ADA complaint resulting in court transcript, it is difficult to get information. But one thing is clear: It is not through mere negligence that SSA hands out disability benefits to people who don’t deserve them. On the contrary, in numerous court cases SSA has loudly defended its right to ignore evidence that applicants are able to work, even explicit admissions by applicants that they are able bodied. With typical bureaucratic distortion, SSA says “able to work” is a term of art that can mean “unable to work.”

Although the SSDI program is subject to internal checks, they are not being diligently executed, with the result that funds reserved for the truly disabled are being awarded to individuals with minor impairments who can hold full-time jobs. To stop this fraudulent waste of Social Security funds, policymakers must rein in the profligate SSDI program and restore integrity to the allocation of money that originates from the paychecks of honest workers.

James M. Taylor, managing editor of the Accommodating Disabilities Business Management Guide, is author of the new Cato Institute study, “Facilitating Fraud: How SSDI Gives Benefits to the Able Bodied.”